How to Write About the Science You (and Others) Did.
I bought Stephen B. Heard’s The Scientist’s Guide to Writing at ESA in 2016. I was a soon-to-be sixth year PhD student with one publication (my master’s thesis) and zero written dissertation chapters. Maybe not exactly zero — there were chunks of methods paragraphs from grant proposals, and a super-rough-draft of chapter 1 shared with collaborators from another university — but close enough that my plans to defend in the spring were borderline comical. I needed writing advice and a structured plan: The Scientist’s Guide to Writing was my magical guidebook, my used Potions textbook annotated by the Half-Blood Prince. I read it methodically, one chapter at a time, and it worked — by March I had four chapters and a viable defense date. I received other lucky breaks besides the perfect reading material: a postdoc fellowship provided motivation to finish the PhD, my parents hosted a writing retreat for my last chapter; there were awesome babysitters, baristas who slipped me extra shots of espresso, and committee members who provided prompt and constructive feedback along the way. But, I still turn to reading when I need help writing.
Earlier this month I covered my favorite new advice papers on How to Do the Science. This week — my favorite recent papers on How to Write About the Science You (and Others) Did: Dr. Scott Hotaling’s Publishing papers while keeping everything in balance: Practical advice for a productive graduate school experience and Dr. Emma Sayer’s The anatomy of an excellent review paper. I like the contrasting perspectives here: Hotaling as a newly minted PhD explains the context for getting the writing done — creating a habit of writing and organizing tasks — while Sayer provides critical advice for the writing that must be accomplished once you have achieved Hotaling’s headspace and you are deep into drafting a review paper. Hotaling’s system will get you to the desk; Sayer’s will polish the word document that’s languishing in your Review Paper file.
Hotaling’s Publishing papers while keeping everything in balance: Practical advice for a productive graduate school experience began as an informal pep talk: he was a postdoc with a good publishing record and grad students in his new department turned to him for advice. “I realized that, like me in graduate school, the students knew they needed to be writing papers (or their thesis) but they didn’t know where to start from a practical standpoint,” he explains. “So, I decided to write down my approach to working to at least give students a jumping off point. When I started looking in the literature, I realized that much of the existing advice came for more senior academics and was often much more cynical than I felt was necessary. Ultimately, I felt I could fill a need by offering my own positive, but realistic, take on how to be productive in graduate school. Once I began writing it, I realized that it should really be a more holistic perspective with advice for being productive mixed with good practices for developing (and maintaining!) collaborations, taking care of your mental health, etc.”
Though Hotaling offers advice that seems more universal and traditional (journals have been publishing writing advice to grad students for a long time) than how to do urban ecology work on private property, I wondered if he ran into the same resistance (3x rejected) from journal editors that Dyson had experienced. “It was difficult!” Hotaling agreed. “I reached out to a number of journal editors and received replies that varied from encouraging rejections to one editor who essentially asked why I wasted my time writing something so useless. Ideas in Ecology & Evolution was the first journal I formally submitted the manuscript to and it wound up being a great home for it.”
Sayer’s advice paper zooms in on writing an excellent review paper. She wrote to me: “To give you a bit of background – I’m a big advocate for the importance of effective science communication. I do a lot of work with early-career researchers on presenting science in various formats to different audiences.” Sayer’s advice paper is built on a deep history of this work. “I started creating guides for the British Ecological Society when I was a postdoc – I’ve written guides on giving talks at conferences and designing science posters (the latter is now used as the society’s guidelines). Within a couple of years of starting my own research group, I had students and postdocs from 7 different countries and many of them struggled with the same aspects of science writing. I compiled a short guide for them, which turned into The British Ecological Society Short Guide to Scientific Writing (and will be published formally in Functional Ecology this year). In the meantime, I had taken on the role of reviews editor for Functional Ecology. Based on the success of the “Short Guide” and my experience in handling review papers from different subdisciplines, the other editors asked if I would try to write a guide for review papers…”
Most of the authors I talked with for this blog post wrote their advice papers as grad students — they were writing the paper they wanted to read early in their careers — but Sayer writes from a more established point in her career. I asked if she thought writing review papers is just a topic that requires more experience. “In this case, yes, having greater experience certainly helped. I’ve always preferred reviews that synthesise information and create something new from the published literature, but it wasn’t until I became Reviews Editor for Functional Ecology that I realised how useful a set of guidelines would be. We learn to summarise information but synthesising it is much harder and is quite an abstract concept to explain to someone.” I too have noticed this steep learning curve between being able to summarize the literature, and being able to add something to the conversation. I first read the short and sweet (three pages!) The anatomy of an excellent review paper early in the group-writing phase of my own review paper (Berend et al. 2019, accepted!). I found myself returning to our google doc with new eyes (which, in an inside joke to myself, I named “Box 1-tinted glasses”) and re-structured our outline around central concepts.
In Part 1 of this series Dr. Ziter had reflected, “I started out thinking this is the paper I wish I had been able to read as a graduate student, and of course by the time the paper came out I was starting my own lab, so now I think I’m so excited that MY grad students will be able to read this before they start fieldwork.” Similarly, Sayer wrote The anatomy of an excellent review paper from the perspective of a PI reminiscing on resources she wished she could have had earlier. “I initially wrote the Short Guide to Scientific Writing for my research group – partly because it described the kind of research papers I wanted to read, but also because I would have loved something like that when I started writing.”
Both Hotaling and Sayer felt that the peer-review process added value and reach to their advice. Hotaling writes, “I chose to publish it as a peer-reviewed paper for two reasons. First, I wanted reviewer input on the paper. I received extensive feedback from my lab and academic friends, but it was important that it also be reviewed by people outside of my day-to-day sphere. It’s a very a personal paper and I needed to know that people who didn’t know me personally still found value in the paper. I’d like to add that the reviewers of the paper (Drs. Meryl Mims and Robert Denton) were exceptional and their feedback greatly strengthened the final paper. And second, from a more practical perspective, it was better for my own career that it be published as a peer-reviewed article.” Sayer echoes, “First and foremost, [peer review] ensures quality – the content has been scrutinised and improved in response to feedback, which gives the reader more confidence in the advice. Then there’s the question of recognition – a lot of work goes into writing guidelines, and thousands of authors have downloaded the paper. It may not attract citations, but it’s still important that the contribution is acknowledged. Last but not least, publishing guidelines as a peer-reviewed paper or editorial makes them much easier to find.”
Since Sayer’s advice emphasizes how to structure a paper, I asked if she had leaned on other advice papers for guidance on structure or tone — essentially, what peer-reviewed advice influenced her presentation of peer-reviewed advice. “There are quite a few papers about writing reviews in other subject areas that I cited in the guidelines.” Here, I need to point out that the short references section in Sayer’s paper is an excellent resource for nerds like me that strive to read their way into better writing. Sayer notes that all of the references contain great advice, but no single paper contained all the information she wanted — that’s why she wrote hers! Her own favorite/favourite advice paper is subject-specific: “I give all my students the 1991 paper by Eberhardt and Thomas on Designing Environmental Field Studies (Ecological Monographs 61:53-73) – it gives a great overview of experimental design and introduces lots of important considerations for developing field work. My other favourite is a book, rather than a paper, but it’s a great read and incredibly useful for communicating research: Made to Stick by Heath and Heath (Random House).”
I asked Hotaling about his favorite advice papers too. We have similar learning styles — he says, “I read a lot of similar papers while writing my own. I particular enjoyed John Smol’s 2016 Some advice to early career scientists: Personal perspectives on surviving in a complex world for its clear, conversational perspective and that paper was a big reason why I ultimately submitted my article to the same journal (Ideas in Ecology and Evolution). Beyond academia, I also drew inspiration from Stephen King’s 2000 memoir “On Writing” and specifically his approach to a regular, ritualistic writing routine. If there’s one takeaway from my paper that I hope early career scientists will try out, it would be developing a regular, daily writing habitat. It’s staggering what such a simple practice can yield in terms of productivity and, at least for me, satisfaction with my work. By writing every day, I feel far less stressed about finishing things and more able to balance my work and life in a healthy way.”
I’m drawn to advice papers, in part, because they can ameliorate imposter syndrome; they say, of course you don’t know this yet, but here, I have given you a guide and you can quietly take this pdf to your favorite chair, curl up with a mug of tea, and have an introvert’s field day. Good advice papers can be a kind of pensieve — the instrument in Dumbledore’s office that allowed wizards in Harry Potter to share their memories, and immerse themselves in each others’ past experiences. I love these particular pensieves and the stories behind their publication — thank you so much to Drs. Dyson, Ziter, Broman, Hotaling, and Sayer!
Sayer, E. J. (2018). The anatomy of an excellent review paper. Functional Ecology, 32(10), 2278–2281. http://doi.org/10.1111/1365-2435.13207
Hotaling, S. (2018). Publishing papers while keeping everything in balance: Practical advice for a productive graduate school experience. Ideas in Ecology and Evolution, 11, 1–12. http://doi.org/10.4033/iee.2018.11.5.f
Banner image: photo by Nic McPhee, Creative Commons